Environment minister plays hardball with CN 

Railway needs to pay up, charges may be laid, says Penner

By Vivian Moreau

Canadian National Railway can expect to pay a lot more than the $2 million it’s offered to the Sea to Sky community as compensation for the 2005 Cheakamus River spill, says B.C.’s Minister of Environment.

“That’s up to CN if they want to put up money to community groups but that does not relieve them from potential prosecution,” Barry Penner told Pique Newsmagazine this week, “nor does it get them off the hook of paying the full cost associated with recovering the Cheakamus River.”

CN has proposed setting up a $2 million recovery fund for the Cheakamus River to which groups could apply for improvement projects that have a visible impact in the region.

Reaction to the recovery fund proposal has been cautiously optimistic from members of the stakeholder and technical committees struck a year and a half ago to plan and implement restoration strategies for the river that was devastated by a 41,000-litre caustic soda spill in August, 2005 after a CN train derailed north of Squamish.

“I’m not ready to say that it’s not enough but I hope it’s enough,” said Chessey Knight, District of Squamish’s environmental coordinator.

Knight said the stakeholder committee recently asked CN instead that a $37.5 million legacy fund be established to fund community education and restoration projects over a 25-year period. That idea was turned down by CN.

Edith Tobe of the Squamish River Watershed Society also sits on the stakeholder committee and proposed the legacy fund, saying it would be a stand-alone fund that “develops a lot more of an outreach component where you’re not restricted by projects that are defined by the spill but by what could benefit the watershed in particular.”

CN gave $2 million to the Pacific Salmon Foundation shortly after the spill that killed over 500,000 fish in the Cheakamus River, but wants to administer the proposed recovery fund itself.

Carl Halvorson of the North Vancouver Outdoor School near Squamish witnessed first-hand the devastation of the spill. He said that although the recovery fund sounds like a good first step, he wonders how the money will be distributed.

“Do you get money up front? Do you have to front the money yourself? Is there a 10, 20, or 30 per cent holdback?”

CN says application approval will be a two-step process involving a perusal and recommendation of applications by the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Steering Committee, which includes representatives from Squamish Nation, CN, District of Squamish, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Approval of the applications will rest with CN, according to CN spokesperson Kelli Svendsen, who emphasized the company is committed to river restoration.

“As we have shown through funding projects like the Cheekeye Bridge fish passage modification, Wilson slough reconnection and fish habitat structure risk analysis on the Cheakamus mainstream.”

CN did not want to disclose how much money it has spent already on restoration projects.

Tobe said the watershed society will shortly apply for two grants: to install more training dike culverts and for a fisheries creel study.

District of Squamish’s Knight said it’s vital that CN be compelled to follow through on its promises.

“It’ll be important for the community to stay on top of the process and make sure these projects (that could receive recovery fund money) actually happen,” she said.

Knight said it’s also important that B.C.’s minister of environment continue to hold CN’s feet to the fire.

“It’s a higher level of comfort for us that we support our senior levels of government looking out for us because we’re not empowered the way the senior government is,” Knight said.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada anticipates its report into the investigation of CN’s derailment and spill into the Cheakamus River will be released in May. Minister Penner said Environment’s conservation office is looking into the possibility of laying charges against CN if the railway company is found negligent. Penner said he has personally complained about the length of time the report is taking to be released.

“I’d like to see if in future it’s possible to see those final reports come more quickly and I’ve communicated that desire to my counterparts at the federal level,” he said. “We want to make sure that their investigation is thorough but it would be great if that could be done on a more timely basis.”

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